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The Web can Suck!

Dumbing Down the World Wide Web

By Jim Bray

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of web sites that look like they want to win design awards.

Don’t get me wrong – I like a whiz bang website as much as the next person, and flashy graphics and animation really can add sparkle to the world wide web. When virtual push comes to cybernetic shove, however, I don’t care how pretty a site is if all it offers me is eye candy.

The world wide web is a wonderful way for organizations to peddle whatever message they may have - unfiltered by editors, network executives, politicians, the competition, or special interest groups. It’s also the great equalizer, because a small company or alternative media outlet can have just as prominent a position, look just as professional, and even be far more relevant, than a big established corporation or publication.

Cyberspace is truly a five billion channel universe, though, so while there are a lot more “fish at sea” as far as potential audience is concerned, there’s also a lot more bait. So once you’ve hooked people’s attention at your home page, you have to keep it.

After all, if surfers look at your Web site and go “that’s nice, but where’s the beef?” they’ll be surfing over to your competition quicker than you can say “artificial intelligence.”

The Web sites of my home town’s two daily newspapers are perfect examples. If all you care about is graphic design, the “daily broadsheet” wins hands down. It even looks like a real newspaper and you can surf from section to section by clicking on a navigation system that looks like different newspaper sections.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for the things you actually find in a newspaper (stuff like misinformation, rumor, hearsay and completely uninformed commentary), the “daily tabloid’s” site leaves the other one in the digital dust.

It isn’t that you can’t get the same misinformation from the Broadsheet, you just can’t most of get it online – whereas the Tabloid publishes what amounts to a “virtually” complete newspaper every day.

So which is the better Web site? The one that’s all form and no substance, or the one that’s all substance (well, as much as you can get from the news media these days!) but looks like it was designed by a grade school student?

There’s nothing wrong with pizzazz per se, but – to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum’s character in the movie “Jurassic Park”– “just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done.”

He was talking about dinosaur DNA, of course, but the same holds true for digital dots and dashes.

Pretty pictures, extravagant animation and nifty navigation tricks can be excellent ways to grab the eye of the Web surfing public, but if you don’t put some real and unique content on your site all you have is a virtual billboard and a wasted online investment.

This can be particularly crazy if you’re spending tens of thousands of dollars on your Web site development and plan to pay someone tens of thousands of dollars to run it for you.

Another dumb thing some companies do is force people to go elsewhere for information they should be giving them - like news about their products and services.

Many web sites take the easy way out and simply add links to the manufacturer’s sites. I guess the rationale is that the manufacturers probably have a bigger budget and can create better product display sites, so it makes sense to ride on their cyber-coattails.

Maybe. By cutting that particular cyber-corner, however, they’ve also sent a potential customer to a web site where they’ll quite possibly find links to all the other dealers with whom they’re competing. They’ve thrown away a potential sale; as far as the surfer’s Browser is concerned, they’re now out of sight - and quite possibly out of mind.

I don’t think that’s the brightest use of cyberspace.

The name of the game is communication, not just titillation – despite the abundance of porno sites.

So if you’ve just bought the latest version of Macromedia Flash (which I must admit is a pretty neat piece of software) or learned to write nifty java applets, don’t forget to figure out how you’re going to keep your audience after the singing and dancing logos end.

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.


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January 31, 2006